Two competing goals: can sustainability and development ever be compatible?

By Sophia Buchanan Barlow, University of Exeter


Early release- Forthcoming in Vol. 1 Issue 2 (January 2021)


The goals of human development and environmental sustainability are at odds which each other within our current paradigm of human wellbeing. Development’s traditional association with economic growth generates more consumption, which exacerbates environmental degradation. This essay contributes to discussions about sustainability and development through critiquing ‘sustainable development’, on the grounds that it is a manifestation of mainstream development. It then outlines how ‘sustainable development’ may learn from its critics, such as degrowth. Degrowth rejects the assumption of mainstream economic thinking and points the way towards shrinking production and consumption for more just and sustainable futures. Finally, it will suggest a new paradigm of ‘relational wellbeing’, which emphasises abandoning our obsession with growth, instead arguing for the importance of our relationships with other people and nature. It will link Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics model’ to relational wellbeing, suggesting that the Doughnut could benefit from relational wellbeing’s consideration of building relationships with, and caring for others to pursue sustainable and socially just futures. The Doughnut Economics model depicts social and planetary boundaries, envisioning a just space for humanity and ecological safety in the centre. This essay will contribute to debates surrounding the failures of development and will build on discussions about envisioning a socially just and environmentally sustainable future through a relational paradigm shift.

1. Introduction

The link between economic growth, which conventional development places at its centre (Kothari et al., 2014) and environmental sustainability has been the subject of dispute for some time (Kathuthu, 2006). The Environmental Kuznets Curve proposes a ‘tipping point’, whereby when countries reach a certain income per capita, growth will reduce the environmental impact of economic activity (Stern et al., 1996).  More recent accounts have called this theory into question. Increasing income of a nation through economic development is likely to lead to increased consumption (Wanner, 2015); resulting in environmental degradation (Jain and Jain, 2019). Thus, I will argue that whilst development prioritises economic growth, development and sustainability cannot be compatible. However, if development can place human wellbeing at the forefront of its aims, sustainability and development could be reconciled. This essay will begin by critiquing ‘Sustainable development’ on the grounds that it is a manifestation of traditional development, therefore focusing too much on economic growth. Then, I will explore how degrowth, as a criticism of development forces us to reflect on growth being the only way forward (Kothari et al., 2014) and how development could learn from criticism to be reconciled with sustainability. Finally, I will propose how we can redefine development to link it to sustainability, centred on the notion that ‘Human Development is about being more, not having more’ (Earth Charter Initiative, 2012 in Helne and Hirvilammi, 2015:173), through encompassing ‘relational human wellbeing’ and incorporating spirituality as a development indicator. I will link this paradigm to Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut economics model’, which shares parallels with rethinking human wellbeing.

2. Discussion

2.1 Critiquing sustainable development

 The 1987 Brundtland Report brought sustainability to the forefront of development, reflecting the importance of previously neglected inter-generational and intra-generational justice (Sen, 2013). ‘Sustainable development’ emerged from this report as a means of reconciling economic growth and environmental sustainability (Lélé, 1991). The report concluded that environmental issues were primarily due to poverty in the global south and high consumption and production in the Global North (United Nations, 1987). One key success of this report, therefore, is exposing unsustainable practices in the Global North. Despite promising notions, it has failed to meet its objectives of halting environmental degradation and eradicating poverty (Kothari et al., 2014). Instead, sustainable development is ‘used as a label to place over modes of existence that are neither sustainable nor developmental’ (Luke, 2005:228), suggesting that sustainable development demonstrates no real change from mainstream development. Most official agendas envisage little fundamental change; promoting more efficient resource use, rather than much-needed radical changes to lifestyles and economic systems (Simon, 1997). Therefore, sustainable development avoids tricky questions regarding societal and institutional change. I argue that sustainable development marks no real difference from mainstream development.

Despite making some progress in encompassing ideas of justice and equity, sustainable development has not reconciled sustainability and development. Its focus on economic growth and maintaining capitalism is key in this. Sustainable development emerged as a ‘passive revolution’ to maintain capitalist hegemony and economic growth’ (Wanner, 2015:27). Inventing the new discourse of ‘sustainable development’ allowed capitalism to persist, emphasising so-called ‘sustainable growth’ over real change (Spangenberg, 2004). Traditional development is confident in the power of markets to reconcile development shortcomings (Hove, 2004). Similarly, sustainable development emphasises unequal development as the key environmental problem and growth as the solution (Middleton et al., 1993). Sustainable development discourse has invented a link between poverty and environmental damage, without exploring the complex, root causes of poverty and environmental degradation (Lélé, 1991), shifting significant blame for environmental degradation onto the poor. In reality, increasing income of a nation is likely to increase consumption (Wanner, 2015), causing environmental problems (Satterthwaite, 2009). This contributes to the maintenance of capitalist hegemony by justifying growth as a means of solving the supposedly reinforcing problems of environmental degradation and poverty. This link is created in order to maintain the same political structure that caused the problem in the first place. 

New discourses within sustainable development include ‘green growth’ as a means of achieving sustainable development. Green growth can lead to the rebound effect (Druckman et al., 2011), through emphasising efficiency (Wanner, 2015), rather than consuming less. This actually increases consumption levels as people believe they are offsetting their emissions. Therefore, efficiency does not equate to sustainability (Wanner, 2015). This also shows how sustainable development continues to rely on developments’ assumption that growth is the sole strategy for problems (Helne and Hirvilammi, 2015). Evidently, the discourse of sustainable development has been manipulated in order to allow for the persistence of capitalist hegemony and economic growth, demonstrating no real diversion from mainstream development.

2.2. Challenging mainstream development

So far, this essay has argued that in order for sustainability and development to be reconciled, development must abandon its obsession with economic growth. This would mean changes to the dominant capitalist political structure and societal changes, whereby high material consumption levels are desirable (Wouter et al., 2013). Despite ‘sustainable development’ having the potential for economic and environmental reforms, it has failed to achieve either objective (Hove, 2004). Due to these failures, challenges to development have emerged, advocating disengagement from development practices altogether (Simon, 1997). However, Simon (1997) argues that the end of development could be problematic, as societies would be left to their own devices and others would be abrogated of responsibility to them. Thus, development should learn from its critics to become compatible with sustainability.

One such challenge to development is degrowth. Degrowth rejects the assumption of endless economic growth, urging us to shrink production and consumption for more just and sustainable futures (Scoones, 2016). Escobar (2015) warns that we may fall into the trap of assuming that degrowth is only important in the global north, when it is important in both the north and south, (Escobar, 2015), indicating that the global goal for ‘more’ needs to be abandoned to pursue a less material-oriented and economically driven lifestyle. Therefore, degrowth calls for radical social and institutional change. Degrowth is not a theory without fault, however. One main critique is that degrowth calls for an exit from the economy, which is highly unrealistic (Schwartzman, 2012). As mentioned above, a shift to degrowth would mean the end of development, abrogating the global North of their responsibility to the global South (Simon, 1997). Therefore, whilst degrowth can teach important lessons about focusing less on economic growth, it is not necessarily the answer to pursuing sustainable development. If development could become more self-reflective by listening to its critics (Slater, 1997 in Simon, 1997) and abandon its primary focus on economic and material wealth, it could be effective in attuning environmental concerns and development.

3. Rethinking human wellbeing through the ‘relational paradigm’ and Spirituality

Degrowth demonstrates the shortcomings of Sustainable development, yet, it also has several faults. Evidently, institutional and societal changes must take place in order to reconcile development with environmental sustainability. Economic growth does not solve poverty (Cobb, 2002) and it degrades the environment, so, moving beyond economic growth as a primary goal and strategy is imperative (Brown, 2016). In order to reconcile development and sustainability, human wellbeing must be placed at the centre of development and must be considered through a sustainability lens. The term ‘human wellbeing’ has rarely been used meaningfully in development policy and practice (Coulthard et al., 2011), therefore, a clearer conception is necessary. Our environmental crisis is due to the human exceptionalism paradigm, whereby nature is seen as a resource for human consumption: the way in which needs are met has social and ecological consequences, so understanding needs through sustainability is important (Helne and Hirvilammi, 2015). ‘Relational wellbeing’ has the potential to open a new paradigm of development, whereby human wellbeing and sustainability could be pursued simultaneously. Relational wellbeing refers to ‘a normative human sense of connection or kinship with other living things… expressive of care, identity, belonging and responsibility’ (West et al., 2018:30). Therefore, relational wellbeing urges humanity to look for a deeper meaning in life, beyond materiality. It also rejects the exceptionalism paradigm, as this version of human wellbeing places humanity and the environment as equal (Helne and Hirivlammi, 2015). 

Helne and Hirvilammi (2015) propose a framework for relational wellbeing, consisting of four components. Firstly, ‘Having’ consists of the satisfaction of needs being met within ecological constraints; secondly, ‘Doing’ suggests improving the quality of our actions through prioritising meaningful causes over the for-pay work model; thirdly, ‘Loving’, regards the quality of our interaction with the social and natural world (Helne and Hirvlammi, 2015). Finally, the most important component is ‘Being’, which consists of having a healthy physical, mental and spiritual existence (Helne and Hirvlammi, 2015). Within this final component is the idea of self-actualisation, whereby the development of humankind is focused on achieving altruism to people and society, rather than being selfish beings (Maslow, 2011 in Helne and Hirvlammi, 2015). If relational wellbeing could be placed at the forefront of development, development could be redefined away from economic and material growth and towards people finding a deeper meaning in life, whereby caring for others and the environment becomes valued. 

As explored above, moving away from development through a concept such as ‘degrowth’ would revoke the global north of their responsibility to the south, whereas re-centring development around ‘relational wellbeing’, would ensure responsibility remained. Additionally, relational wellbeing recognises the importance of the economy and suggests restructuring it. This would involve the redistribution of paid work and increased voluntary work to help others (Helne and Hirvilammi, 2015). Currently, there appears to be no way of measuring ‘relational wellbeing’; this challenge will need to be confronted in future research. 

A revised set of development indicators, which focus on non-economic components of wellbeing (Brown, 2016), will be required in order to pursue relational wellbeing within development. Progress is being yielded towards this through the ‘World Happiness Report’ which combines a series of subjective and objective indicators to measure happiness (Helliwell et al., 2020). One particular indicator which I argue has the potential to reconnect sustainability and development is ‘spirituality’. Once used in the context of the deeply religious person, spirituality now encompasses an individual seeking wellbeing and happiness (Koenig, 2008). This possible indicator places simplicity at its centre (Jain and Jain, 2019), away from high-consumption lifestyles, which ties in well to ‘relational wellbeing’. Spiritual beliefs impact how people think about environmental degradation and the likelihood of pro-environmental behaviour (Csutora and Zsóka, 2014). This would require a long-term drastic change in society, whereby individuals value the non-material aspects of life over the economic. The Human Development Index places countries higher based on fast income growth (Wouter et al., 2013), prioritising wealth over sustainability. Adding the dimension of spirituality could transform how countries perceive and aim for development. Countries attaining a high spiritual quotient tend to be negating conspicuous consumption, aware, value-led and enjoy giving back to society (Jain and Jain, 2019). Therefore, high spirituality improves human wellbeing and reduces society’s ecological footprint without the need for endless economic growth, so this provides a promising pathway for development to be reconciled with sustainability. Yet, spirituality and relational wellbeing must be opened up for scrutiny, to allow for criticism (Simon, 1997). Spiritualty is a notoriously obscure term, with no agreed definition (Bregman, 2004). This would make comparisons across different countries challenging, which could generate confusion regarding aims. Additionally, there is no way of measuring the spiritual dimension of sustainable development (Jain and Jain, 2019), which is a significant challenge. More research is required in defining and measuring ‘spirituality’, and ‘relational wellbeing’ if they are to be adopted into Sustainable Development.

4. Doughnut Economics Model

Figure 1. This is the Doughnut Economics model, depicting social and planetary boundaries. A just space for humanity and ecological safety lies in the centre. The red areas represent overshoot of planetary boundaries. (Raworth, 2017b)

Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economic model’ (see Figure 1) depicts two boundaries; social and ecological, focusing on allowing every human to thrive within planetary boundaries (Raworth, 2017a). The inner circle contains the shortfalls of human wellbeing, including poverty, whilst the outer circle reflects the ecological ceiling; anything beyond this is an overshoot of pressure on our earth system (Raworth, 2017a). Raworth’s model is being utilised in Amsterdam to rebuild from the Coronavirus (Boffey, 2020). The deputy Mayor of Amsterdam, van Doornick, suggests that although the model does not provide a single answer, it is a powerful way of planning, so that Amsterdam does not return to its pre-pandemic environmental and social issues (Boffey, 2020). The main social issue is a lack of affordable housing; the simple solution would be constructing more homes, however, Amsterdam’s carbon dioxide emissions are already 31% above 1990 levels, so in the face of an environmental crisis, this is not an option for Amsterdam (Boffey, 2020). Thus, this model points to a new way of thinking about the economy. Raworth highlights the issues with incessant economic growth in her work, and as my argument has demonstrated, relational wellbeing could allow us to abandon our obsessions with economic growth and consumption. I argue that embedding relational wellbeing in the Doughnut could improve it. As an economic model, I do not believe the Doughnut has enough consideration of the social means of pursuing environmentally sustainable and socially just futures. By encompassing Helne and Hirvilammi’s (2015) concepts of ‘having’, ‘doing’, ‘loving’ and ‘being’, shifting away from a focus on economic growth and caring for others could become a reality. Additionally, this model alongside relational wellbeing could be placed at the forefront of development, averting the focus from GDP growth to a more meaningful economic model, where the main focus is meeting people’s needs without exceeding environmental boundaries, whilst finding a deeper meaning in life.

5. Conclusions

In conclusion, this essay has demonstrated why sustainable development has failed to meet its objectives through its incessant focus on economic growth and parallels with conventional development. I have argued that development could learn from degrowth, through emphasising non-material aspects of life and discarding economic growth as the dominant development indicator. Finally, I have suggested how development could be redefined through relational wellbeing; insofar that human wellbeing must focus on environmental and societal relationships (Helne and Hirvilammi, 2015). I have then outlined how spiritualty, as an indicator could be embedded into development, allowing for countries to develop along a different, environmentally conscious trajectory (Jain and Jain, 2019). Despite challenges with measuring relational wellbeing and spirituality, progress is being made towards measuring abstract indicators of wellbeing through the ‘World Happiness Report’, for example. Perhaps, similar principles could be applied to measure relational wellbeing and spirituality, but further research is needed. The parallels shared between relational wellbeing and the Doughnut Economics model suggest that these two may work harmoniously within development, through pursuing a different kind of economic development through caring for other people and the environment. Whether or not development can be redefined in order to place human wellbeing and environmental protection at its forefront is still in question. However, the need to abandon economic development as a primary ‘solution’ is imperative for reconciling development and sustainability.

6. Acknowledgements

Thank you very much to Dr Louisa Evans for providing advice, encouragement and thorough feedback.

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